The Catholic Church teaches that marriage began with the bond between Adam and Eve. “From the beginning, God created them male and female.” Marriage is the natural human institution of the complementarity of the sexes. Marriage is a partnership that a man and a woman establish between themselves for the whole of life, which by its nature is ordered to the good and salvation of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. With Christ, this human institution was raised and blessed with sacramental grace.
When two baptized persons enter into marriage, the marriage is necessarily a sacrament. However, when at least one of the two persons is Catholic, then special requirements must be met for the Church to validate the sacramental marriage. Without this validation, the marriage is considered an invalid attempted marriage and a simulation of the sacrament of marriage, which is a state of sin.
For a marriage to be valid when at least one of the two persons is Catholic…
- Both parties must be free to enter into marriage (no existing marriages or vows, must be at least the age of consent, must have the capacity to consent)
- Both parties must validly exchange the promises that create the marriage (during the wedding)
- Both parties must be Catholic (can be dispensed with permission; Catholic spouse must promise to the best of their ability to raise any children Catholic)
- Marriage must be conducted in a Catholic parish church (can be dispensed with permission)
- Marriage must be witnessed by at least two other witnesses (usually the Maid/Matron of Honor and the Best Man)
- Marriage must be presided over by a priest or deacon (the pastor or given authority by the pastor)
- Marriage formation/preparation must begin 9-12 months prior to the wedding.
Marriage has the capacity to be the greatest human experience possible–a living icon of the love of God. But it doesn’t come easy. And that which has the potential to be the most beautiful, can easily become distorted into something ugly. The Catholic Church has a vested interest in happy, flourishing, fruitful, faithful marriages. For one, these couples provide a counter-example to the cynical skepticism in society about the good of marriage. Two, happy married couples bring joy by their strong, faithful witness and grace to those around them by their vocation. Three, strong, healthy marriages raise strong, healthy children who are a blessing to the Church, the community, and the world. And four, we want people to enjoy God’s blessings!
But for marriage to yield the good fruit possible to its nature, it must have boundaries of what it must be and what it cannot be.
- It must be between a man and a woman. Marriage is expressed most abundantly in the “marital embrace of the consummation between the spouses.” It must be the union of complementarity, not just in male and female physiology, but in male and female brain and body chemistry, in psychology, sociology, and entire way of being and relating. We are made to come together as male and female. Same-sex couples may have strong bonds of love that bind them together, which of course also are intensified by entangling that love with interactive, simultaneous physical pleasure. But while all love is beautiful, not all love is to be nurtured as romantic or given sexual expression. We must distinguish the secular view of marriage as a bond of intense friendship, versus the sacramental view of marriage as a conjugal/nuptial union, which reveals the complete self-giving love of the inner life of the Holy Trinity.
- It must be free. It has to be fully consented to by both spouses, without any external pressure of urgency or force. Like Jesus, who said, “no one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord,” love, to be worthy of the name, must be freely given, and freely received.
- It must be total. No secrets (except for Christmas presents). No secret bank accounts or purchases. Transparency. Nuptial love orders the spouses to service of one another. It might involve accommodating a weakness of the other in a selfless way (provided it does not cause sin). Both spouses must be all-in for whatever it takes to make it work and thrive. It must be indissoluble, unconditional, and unlimited, come what may. If one or the other party becomes abusive, it is the right of the other to seek safety, even by separation. But separation should be sought with the goal of a period of counseling, healing, and reconciliation. Jesus had strong words against divorce (and remarriage), which the Catholic Church abides. Marriage, if it is sacramentally valid, cannot be put asunder, and is until death.
- It must be faithful. Marriage must provide that unconditional, total commitment between the spouses for the marriage to mature and develop with the strength to endure as it must. It is a mutuality of service and love. It is in this stability that children are best served by a secure emotional and developmental environment. They learn of the enduring, unconditional love of God through witnessing the patient, forgiving, joyful love of their parents for each other. Unfaithfulness or any violation of trust is not valid grounds for ending a marriage. It is grounds for humility, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
- It must be fruitful. Not every conjugal act, nor even every marriage, will necessarily be blessed with procreation, but the nuptial embrace itself as a total exchange between spouses is oriented toward the procreation of new life. Acts of conjugal intimacy must lead to the nuptial embrace (consummation), not substitute for it. Any disordered manipulation of the nuptial embrace threatens the integrity of the act (which affects the nature of the nuptial relationship, since the two are so intimately related). The nuptial embrace is ordered to the union of the spouses and the procreative nature of the union. It is disordered to separate these two essential aspects. Artificial contraception seeks the union without the procreative aspect, and thus is immorally disordered. Artificial forms of conception (such as IVF) seek the procreation apart from the conjugal act, and thus is immorally disordered (along with some other moral problems of IVF).
The Church (and several other Christian denominations) promote Natural Family Planning (NFP) as the best moral course for regulating childbirth in marriage. NFP has numerous health benefits for women who use it, and for communication in marriage. Couples that use NFP have about a 98% marriage success rate (or about 2% divorce rate). More information about NFP will be posted on our page in the future. There are many web pages with information available.
If you are planning to get married, please contact the parish office as soon as possible to begin marriage formation and preparation through the Church. If you are married outside the Church, please contact the parish office to explore possibilities for “convalidating” (sacramentalizing your marriage in the Church).
Marriage is a public event in the Christian community, not a clandestine arrangement made in secret. Catholics must be married in view of the community of the Church, which validates that the couple is potentially able to enter into marriage, prepares them to live out their marriage promises, and publicly blesses their marriage promises with sacramental grace. So when two people promise before God and the Christian community that they are uniting until death do they part, come what may, it is not God’s plan that they divorce. Like all Christian life, marriage is the call to be selfless, humble, forgiving, and holy. It’s the cross. It demands unconditional commitment. We are not promised a happy life; we are promised the paradoxical joy of the cross, which, if persevered through, will lead us to salvation. That’s why you promise to be faithful: because there’s a lot of times and situations tempting married couples to give up.
The exception rests on Jesus’ words in Mark and Luke’s Gospels, “What God has joined together,” and the exception in Matthew’s gospel, which is, “unless the marriage is unlawful/sinful.” God joins together those who worthily exchange their promises of life-long fidelity (remember… the effective reception of a sacrament requires the “necessary disposition” to receive it). But… if, at the time of that exchange of promises, one or both of the persons are too emotionally or spiritually immature; if they lack the intention or ability to make and keep their promises; or due to other obstacles to the sacrament of marriage being formed, then one or the other can take their exchange of promises to the Church to say that God did not join this union together. And if the Church agrees, the couple is given a declaration of nullity (an annulment). But this is not divorce. Divorce says that a contract of marriage existed for a time, and then ended. An annulment says that the covenant of marriage had never been formed, and the persons were not (and are not) sacramentally married. God does not will divorce—he says “Let your yes be yes.” But God’s plan accommodates human sinfulness and weakness, and He can bring good out of it. There are good marriages that followed after earlier failed marriages that had been annulled.
If you are divorced and do not have an annulment, please contact the parish office as soon as possible to begin the annulment process. Annulments vary in cost and involvement depending on what aspect(s) of the failed marriage are the best grounds for petitioning for an annulment. Note: Not every petition for annulment will result in an annulment; not every civil divorce was the result of a sacramentally invalid exchange of vows. You may be, as you promised, married until death do you part.
A child conceived through immoral reproductive procedures such as IVF is not in any way less of a miraculous gift of God. The sins of the parents do not fall upon the head of the child. But the parents do need sacramental reconciliation (including true contrition for the immoral act), even though God in his generosity brought the good of a child out of it. Likewise, a child conceived of a marriage that is annulled does not become an illegitimate child.
A person who divorces, with or without an annulment may continue to actively participate in the sacramental life of the Church (receive communion and confession). However, a person who marries outside of the Church in an invalid marriage, whether or not there is a prior divorce, has broken communion with the Church, and can no longer receive the sacraments, until their invalid situation is sacramentally resolved, if possible.